Liability of homeowners to contractors

Construction workers on roof

Contractors who are injured when working in private homes can face difficulties in seeking redress for their injuries, particularly if they are self-employed or employed by a company with no insurance.

Where the employer cannot be sued, can the contractor claim compensation from the homeowner? 

The homeowner may have had some involvement in deciding how the work was to be carried out or may have provided equipment for the contractor to use. From a practical point of view, the homeowner may have assets and insurance and so might be in a position to meet a claim.

Case example: Contractor claims compensation from homeowners after fall from ladder

An example of how the courts treat such actions can be seen in the decision of the Supreme Court of Tasmania in the case of Hendrex v Keating [2016] TASSC 20.

The Keatings hired Mr Hendrex, a friend who was also a professional roofing contractor, to remove some roof cladding from their house. Mr. Keating set up a ladder at the front of the carport so that the roof of the house could be accessed by climbing up onto the carport roof.

Mr Keating set up the ladder “in the A position”, rather than extending it up to the roof, and did not secure it.

In this position it was slightly lower than the roof by 40cm, which meant that an awkward manoeuvre was required to reach the ladder when coming down from the roof.

If the ladder had been erected as a straight extension ladder, this would have doubled the height that could be reached when it was in the A position, which presumably would have made the task of coming down from the roof more straightforward.

As Mr Hendrex came down the ladder, both he and the ladder fell onto the concrete below, and he suffered serious injury.

The court held that the risk of injury was foreseeable and the Keatings were found primarily liable on the basis that they had a duty to take reasonable care to protect Mr Hendrex from harm when he was travelling up to and down from the carport roof.

By providing a ladder that was too short and not secured, the Keatings had breached the duty of care applicable to them.

It should be noted that Mr Hendrex was also found to have contributed to the accident as he had chosen to descend the ladder facing forwards, however, this was not enough to displace the finding of primary liability against the Keatings.

Given the seriousness of the injury suffered by Mr Hendrex, the court made a significant award.

Case example: Builder claims against homeowner after ladder set up dangerously causes fall

This can be compared to the decision of the English Court of Appeal in Kmiecic v Isaacs [2011] EWCA Civ 451.

Mrs Isaacs hired a builder to carry out repair work to the roof of her garage. Although the easiest way to access the garage roof would have been from inside the house by climbing out of a bedroom window, she refused to allow the contractors to come into the house in case they damaged her pristine white carpets.

Instead Mr Kmiecic, an employee of the builder, had to use a ladder from Mrs Isaac’s garage. As he was passing up building materials the ladder toppled and he was seriously injured.

Even more unfortunately for Mr Kmiecic, his employer was uninsured, so he raised an action against Mrs Isaacs on the basis that she had exercised control over the manner in which he was to undertake the work.

The court was not quick to find the homeowner liable and held there was nothing to extend the employer’s obligations onto the homeowner in such circumstances. Mrs Issacs had not exercised any control over the way in which the work had actually been carried out.

Whilst there are similarities between the two cases in that the homeowner provided the ladder involved in the accident, an important distinction is that, in Hendrex, the homeowner also set up the ladder in a way which was foreseeably dangerous.

Hendrex appears to indicate that any real involvement in the work of contractors, such as setting up ladders, may create a clear duty on the homeowner to think about safety and, although the UK courts have traditionally been slow to find homeowners liable in such circumstances, it might be argued that, in actually setting up the ladder in a manner which affected the way in which a worker accessed the area to be worked on, the householder was exercising a degree of control over the way in which the work was carried out.